As I sat at the White House last Monday night and listened to the president celebrating the passage of the First Step Act, several things occurred to me. After volunteering in the prison system for 27 years, I am heartened by a seemingly bipartisan effort to right a clear social injustice — today, many fellow citizens are not getting a legitimate shot at a new life after having paid their debts to society. Moreover, and maybe more importantly, with the publication of the book The New Jim Crow and the release of the movie 13th, which powerfully illustrate how entrenched racial inequality is in the country’s criminal justice system, a national consciousness seems to be growing that people who have made mistakes deserve a second chance in life.
The national recidivism rate has remained stubbornly high in the U.S. over the past 30 years; two-thirds of people released from prison go back within three years. Without meaningful employment for people (and to be a little more real, for a second), I’m actually surprised that number is not higher.
President Trump signed the First Step Act last December, in a rare bipartisan move that reformed federal sentencing practices and promoted new recidivism-reduction programs. The act is a move in the right direction. The Second Step initiative, which was announced Monday, will go further and aim to reduce unemployment for people with criminal records by funding inmate reentry programs. However, several key things seem to be missing from both, and I worry that no real change will be achieved unless they are addressed. These are two “deal killers” that will prevent meaningful reform:
The prevalence of search engines and social media are truly hurting people who have been judicially involved. Even if you commit a crime, such as small drug possession as a late teen or in your early 20s, your mug shot record remains in a Google search in perpetuity. And, whether they admit it or not, most human resources departments still use Google as a first screen in their application processes. I was working with a young woman a few years ago who was in her early 20s. She shoplifted when she was around 18. We put her name into Google, and the first thing that popped up was a none too flattering mug shot — probably not a great first impression. Companies such as Google can make meaningful changes that could make second chances truly possible.
We need changes to state laws and jurisdictions, not just federal law, to tackle this problem. The vast majority of people who are incarcerated reside in state prisons. There are 1.3 million people in state prisons, six times the number in federal prisons and jails. The First Step Act makes significant changes, such as sentencing reform, at the federal level. Even if the federal system gets better, it is a small dent.
Governors need to move harder and faster on the issue. Most times, it is not what these governors must do; it is what they must stop doing. They simply have to take away punitive measures that states enforce after incarceration. If you go to prison and fail to appear for court while in prison, you can actually incur civil and criminal penalties for failure to appear. Neat trick to appear in court while you are in prison. This is a waiting surprise for people who are released and want to begin again.
As they say, God — or else the devil — is in the details. I am glad people now recognize the issues, but this is a case where we have to go deep to make any meaningful and lasting impact.